socialism

The Early Theorists

Socialism arose in the late 18th and early 19th cent. as a reaction to the economic and social changes associated with the Industrial Revolution. While rapid wealth came to the factory owners, the workers became increasingly impoverished. As this capitalist industrial system spread, reactions in the form of socialist thought increased proportionately. Although many thinkers in the past expressed ideas that were similar to later socialism, the first theorist who may properly be called socialist was François Noël Babeuf, who came to prominence during the French Revolution. Babeuf propounded the doctrine of class war between capital and labor later to be seen in Marxism.

Socialist writers who followed Babeuf, however, were more moderate. Known as "utopian socialists," they included the comte de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen. Saint-Simon proposed that production and distribution be carried out by the state. The leaders of society would be industrialists who would found a national community based upon cooperation and who would eliminate the poverty of the lowest classes. Fourier and Owen, though differing in many respects, both believed that social organization should be based on small local collective communities rather than the large centralist state of Saint-Simon. All these men agreed, however, that there should be cooperation rather than competition, and they implicitly rejected class struggle. In the early 19th cent. numerous utopian communistic settlements founded on the principles of Fourier and Owen sprang up in Europe and the United States; New Harmony and Brook Farm were notable examples.

Following the utopians came thinkers such as Louis Blanc who were more political in their socialist formulations. Blanc put forward a system of social workshops (1840) that would be controlled by the workers themselves with the support of the state. Capitalists would be welcome in this venture, and each person would receive goods in proportion to his or her needs. Blanc became a member of the French provisional government of 1848 and attempted to put some of his proposals into effect, but his efforts were sabotaged by his opponents. The anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon and the insurrectionist Auguste Blanqui were also influential socialist leaders of the early and mid-19th cent.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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